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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Jurgen Klopp Finds New Solutions for New-Look Liverpool in Victory Over Sheffield United

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Sadio Mane, Diogo Jota
Jota and Mane played crucial roles in Liverpool’s victory | Stu Forster/Getty Images

A penny for the thoughts of every Sheffield United player and supporter when they laid eyes upon Liverpool’s starting lineup for Saturday evening’s game. A sight that would strike fear into any side.

The absence of Naby Keita and Thiago Alcantara from the team-sheet meant that the Reds were lacking a real passer of the ball in the midfield, someone who can create and invent while keeping the game moving.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jurgen Klopp
Klopp dishing out some instructions | Stu Forster/Getty Images

And Jurgen Klopp clearly feels he now has no choice other than to sacrifice Fabinho from the base of his midfield, so that the Brazilian can shore up his back four, following the season-ending injury to talisman Virgil van Dijk.

So, changes were afoot. But who saw this radical switch in tactics and system coming?

The German coach clearly decided that if the Reds don’t possess the players to cut Sheffield United apart with intricate through balls or delicate play, they’ll have to blow them away with a bazooka, instead.

That bazooka came in the shape of a bold front four, with Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Diogo Jota all starting together for the first time in the Premier League. This left Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum with the tough task of marshalling the midfield alone, against a dynamic and excellently drilled Chris Wilder team.

Diogo Jota, Jordan Henderson
The dream team | Stu Forster/Getty Images

Would it be a step too far? Would the Reds lose control of the game?

Well, it was hardly vintage, but it worked. Like a tight-knit group of friends shiftily eyeing a newcomer into their midst, we were always bound to see a few teething problems, as the deadly trio became a fearsome quartet.

The change in style saw Firmino dropping even deeper than usual, taking on the role of playmaker and adding that eye for a pass to the midfield. However, the Brazilian has been desperate to get on the scoresheet for far too long, so when the moment arrived to bombard the penalty area, the number nine was regularly in pole position.

Firmino’s deeper role meant that Salah could tuck in and attack more centrally, often taking up positions on the right and then arrowing towards the penalty spot with his explosive runs. And that left space for Jota to have some fun.

Mohamed Salah
Salah was unfortunate not to get on the scoresheet | Pool/Getty Images

The Portuguese star didn’t have the biggest of impacts in the first half, as he and his teammates readjusted to their new roles. His time would come, though.

A shaky start and a soft penalty meant that the pressure was well and truly thrust on this new system, with the microscope fixed on just how this forward line could create goals. From wide, would be the response.

The Reds came back into the game just like champions, first equalising through Firmino, and then a free header for Jota allowed him to grab the all-important winning goal. The two strikes came from pinpoint crosses in wide areas, the first of which forcing a great save and conversion on the rebound, and the second being an excellently directed header.

And there were chances for more. Salah took a stranglehold of the game, but couldn’t find that elusive goal, while Mane will also feel hard done by for not getting his name on the scoresheet. In the end though, it was enough.

Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold
The two best wing-backs in the league | Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

It wasn’t only up top where these changes had drastic effects. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson were forced to sit a touch deeper than they’d probably like, and their freedom to fly up and down the flanks had been temporarily clipped.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that Liverpool have been targeted in wide areas by their opponents of late, who often look to exploit the gaps left by the wing-backs and launch counter-attacks of their own. So, it’s proven to be a simple and efficient fix from the German coach, and while defending is actually not this pair’s most notable skill, they are excellent in that department, regardless.

Job done, then. Not a classic, and not entirely convincing. But this Liverpool side is finding new ways of winning, and that should be the most encouraging sign of all for Reds supporters.

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